By Kim Young-jin
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt was treated like a "rock star" on a visit to North Korea last week, the head of his delegation, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said Saturday.
Such treatment referred to the level of interest in Schmidt on the tightly-controlled visit, despite ongoing questions over the timing of the travel in the wake of Pyongyang's Dec. 12 long-range rocket launch.
"Eric Schmidt was like a rock star there, talking to people, to students to scientists, to software engineers about the importance of the Internet," Richardson told CNN. "I think it is important that we not isolate the North Koreans."
The former U.S. official said the "private, humanitarian" mission had three goals: to urge the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to refrain from nuclear weapons testing; to check on an American detained there; and encourage greater openness to information.
The U.S. State Department warned before the trip that it was ill-timed as Washington was pushing for international punishment for the rocket launch. Richardson said the concern was merited but argued that it was time to engage.
"I am worried that we are headed toward a confrontation with the North Koreans feeling isolated," he said, adding that the regime may move toward diplomacy if Kim feels he "established his domestic strength" through the successful launch.
For some, however, the high visibility of the trip raised the possibility that the regime would use it as propaganda fodder.
While Richardson stressed the private nature of the trip, the North's state media portrayed it as a "delegation from Google Inc. of the U.S. headed by Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico State." Some analysts said while this could make the visit seem more impressive to high-ranking officials at a time when Kim Jong-un is pushing science and technology as a growth engine.
Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group said such trips carry political risks that should be weighed.
"As private citizens they have that liberty to travel. On the other hand these guys are public figures and their status makes them potential propaganda tools," he said.
Upon return Richardson said he received assurances that the detainee, Kenneth Bae, was in good health and that judicial proceedings against him would soon start.
Previous U.S. politicians such as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have made successful private trips to the North to retrieve Americans detained there, who analysts say are used as political bargaining chips to meet with prominent figures.
While Schmidt said he warned the regime that its information blockade would stunt economic development, Pinkston said such comments were very unlikely to be carried by the North Korean press.
The analyst pointed to Clinton's 2009 trip to Pyongyang, during which he negotiated the release of two American journalists as an example. Clinton brought along his personal physician when he met with late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who had suffered a stroke the previous year, potentially gaining insight on the dictator's health.
Pinkston said the North, by not releasing Bae to the high-profile visitors, sent a signal both internally and to the outside world.
"The message is that anything (Pyongyang) perceives to be subversive to the state, whether you bring in a Bible or information, you will pay the consequences," he said.
The North has cracked down on the populace under the Kim Jong-un regime and Seoul says the number of defectors has dropped significantly due to tightened border controls.